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WhiteStar Navigator

MAPPS: Geospatial Legislation and You

Selina Sandoval

WhiteStar is a long standing member of the only national association of firms in the surveying, spatial data and geographic information systems field in the United States - MAPPS. The group is bipartisan, and meets formally twice each calendar year to discuss legislation having an impact on mapping and mapping programs in the US.  We just held our winter meeting in Tampa.  The organization’s leadership works full time between meetings on issues guided by the MAPPS board of directors and members.   National parcel mapping, cadastral mapping, lidar, 3D Elevation data (3-DEP) and geological mapping (and its associated funding or lack thereof) are a few of the topics of interest to industry, WhiteStar and its customers.  

For example, did you know that the US has no GIS database of the real estate property it owns?  Without such information, every agency from the Post Office to Defense to the USGS and BLM in the Department of Interior have literally no idea of the precise properties each owns, whether it makes financial sense to own them, or if they’re duplicative of other facilities.  Some baby steps were taken in the last Congress towards with the passage into law of H.R. 6451 and 4465 strengthen the Federal Real Property Council to identify properties for collocation opportunities and a Public Buildings Reform Board to identify properties for disposal.  These were signed into law by President Obama in December, 2016. 

For the past several Congresses, MAPPS and its members have been working for the passage of the Federal Land Asset Inventory Reform (FLAIR) Act.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has repeatedly (108th-115th Congresses) designated "Managing Federal Real Property" one of the high-risk areas within the Federal government most prone to waste, fraud and abuse.  Senator Murkowski (R-AK) introduced the last incarnation of the FLAIR Act, and included it in the energy bill that passed the Senate, but unfortunately time ran out at the end of the session for House and Senate conferees to agree on an energy package.  We expect the bill will be reintroduced, and we are particularly fond of the strong GIS language in the last version and hope to see that again.

There is also no nationally coordinated parcel dataset for the USA.  It is a national disgrace that such a dataset does not exist to support infrastructure, emergencies, disasters and other applications. One wonders how FEMA can fulfill its mandate at all, and we all know what a failure the National Flood Insurance Program has been without proper maps and data.  WhiteStar has a team of people actively culling and obtaining parcel data from every available county in the United States.

In March, MAPPS members including yours truly will go to Capitol Hill in Washington, DC to work with Senators and Representatives to garner support for important initiatives that the MAPPS Board of Directors has identified such as the FLAIR act and the National Parcel Dataset Initiative.  We hope that the new administration will listen more earnestly to arguments about waste reduction and efficiency improvements.  

Recently I was appointed the chairman of the MAPPS Cadastre Task Force, so I am actively seeking your input on what you think is important for the health of your business in the current session of Congress.   

"From oil and gas well location surveys to topography, boundaries to pipelines, remote sensing, LiDAR data, digital imagery, and hyperspectral data to support oil and gas exploration, development, decommissioning and monitoring projects, MAPPS has been in the forefront of utilization of geospatial technologies, sound energy and infrastructure policy, and the need for a current, accurate inventory of government-owned land and buildings."

                    John Palatiello - MAPPS Executive Director

Giving, and Stories Through Maps

Selina Sandoval

Each year at WhiteStar, we give each employee $200 to donate to a cause they support.  WhiteStar values giving back something to the community, and this program has been well received by employees.   The only requirement is that the charity qualify for 5013(c) under the IRS tax code.  Other than that, the employee can choose any cause.  This year, we supported fifteen different causes from humane societies to cancer awareness to youth soccer and homeless organizations. Next year we hope to do even more.  

In other news, I wanted to publicly thank our partner Esri for an amazing game changing software product - Esri Story Maps. This web application lets you tell a story using your own maps, text, and data.  Think of how many times you have wanted to tell others about your project but cringed dragging visitors back to see a map on a monitor.  Using Esri Story Maps, you can tell your mapping story and then share it via a link in an email, blog, or newsletter. 

Here is a link to an interesting Esri Story Map on the bombing of Pearl Harbor marking the USA’s entrance into World War II.   Here is another Esri Story Map on some troublesome borders around the world.  Pointing  your browser to the Esri Story Maps site, you can see many additional examples.

At WhiteStar, we use Esri Story Maps to better communicate what we do.  If you are a GIS professional, you have doubtless felt frustrated explaining your job to people to others who do not work in the industry - “I’m in Maps.”  Using Esri Story Maps, we can now show people a snapshot of what we do along with explanatory text.  This entertaining example shows two Government Land Office (BLM) survey plat maps for a single township in Wyoming.  We georeferenced the old plat and the new plat.  Using the spyglass, you can move the lens over to compare the top map (oldest) with the underlying map (newest) to see the very dramatic differences.  Obviously keeping your digital land grid data up-to-date and not just downloading “whatever data you find” is critical.  In this case, it makes a difference of up to a mile in accuracy!

Here is another Esri Story Map example showing the entire lifeline of our data from ancient hardcopy map to digital vector data. 

Bottom line, our partnership with Esri - we’re a Silver Partner - brings value to our customers.  We understand, play with, and use a wide variety of Esri software offerings both in development and production, and then we share our expertise and quality products with you.   Without the partner program, we simply would not bring as much value in our offerings.

What’s in a Legal?

Selina Sandoval

White_Robert Company Photo.jpg

Land mapping lies at the core of natural resource businesses.  An organization must map its ownership and/or lease boundaries to thrive.  Historically this task has been done by hand, but new technology permits automations, accuracy,  and efficiencies.

Thirty US states use the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) devised by Thomas Jefferson as the basis for all land mapping. Land legals in the remaining states use bearings and distance (metes and bounds) to describe the boundary survey.  Texas, though a “metes and bounds” state, also uses PLSS-like legal descriptions in some areas, and references abstract-survey-block or lot-tract-subdivision in other areas.  Because of its unique history, Texas has many different surveying systems.

The Public Land Survey System (PLSS)

Land parcel legal descriptions within the PLSS reference the underlying land grid, i.e. meridian-section-township-range.  Legals may also reference permanent government lots or tracts within the section.  Legals containing references to lots, tracts, and quarter-quarters cannot be mapped without the detailed, granular, digitized data within each section.  Chaining the changes from these documents (or plats) together over the span of 200 years to produce the current “lay of the land” is critical to mapping legals accurately.

Metes and Bounds States

In metes-and-bounds states, there is sadly no intervening reference PLSS.  Survey boundaries exist as a chaotic set of  “shattered glass” polygons not necessarily tied to one another. In the northeastern states, it is more difficult to determine lease ownership as there is no index into a larger picture, permanent PLSS.  Interestingly, some organizations have tried to create a “pseudo PLSS” to reference polygons and wells in metes-and-bound states with varying degrees of success. The primary reason for failure is that such a pseudo-grid is not public domain and has no regulatory authority or tie to the land surveying community.  In different geographies, and in different companies one can see that mapping legals requires different resources, skills and tactics to create an accurate map.

The Challenges of Auto-Mapping

A real estate parcel or oil and gas lease can easily change geometry, owners, or other attributes frequently, whereas the PLSS seldom changes (we can, however, spend lots of effort capturing it increasingly more accurately).  A rural farm in Colorado may have the  PLSS legal description within the Sixth Principal Meridian, Township 8N 86W section 16  and a specific location within the section:  “LOTS 1,2,3,4, S/2 S/2 Tract 74”.  Naive software might “automagically” map the polygon within the north half of the north half of the section, but the original plats show these government lots and tracts to be firmly in the south half of the south half of the section, nearly ¾ of a mile away.

Would it not be nice to compute the legal boundary given the textual legal description instead of hand mapping it?  In the past, software programs have only been able to map legals using just the section polygon.  The  sectional subdivisions in the PLSS, i.e. lots, tracts, quarter quarters, and quarters of sections had not been digitized for most states, and poorly so in some government data.  This state of affairs has resulted in inaccurate, highly generalized maps.  Now that WhiteStar is building out that data for the 30 PLSS states, automated legal mapping is improving from 60-70% to well over 90%, the remainder are typically metes-and-bounds descriptions not referencing the PLSS.  You can save extraordinary amounts of money by mapping legals automatically using systems such as Quorum and high resolution data containing lots, tracts, and quarter-quarters captured from the original survey plats.